November 14th, 2017 | ASAH Team
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the most commonly used illicit psychoactive drug in the past 30 days in the United States was marijuana (also known as cannabis). Reportedly, around 4 million people aged 12 or above were suffering from marijuana use disorder. This corresponds to 1.5 percent of the population aged 12 or older.
Medical marijuana has become legal in 29 states of the country, including the District of Columbia. Whereas, seven states have even legalized for recreational use. Legalization of marijuana has made it possible to use it for treating a variety of health problems, such as chronic pain, inflammation, anxiety and nausea among others. Moreover, there is a possibility of its usefulness in controlling epileptic seizures, mental illnesses and addiction.
However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any product derived from or containing botanical marijuana and has not found any such product to be safe and effective. Some studies even indicate that marijuana can have negative effects, such as neuropsychological decline on the long-term users.
In view of its widespread use both medically and recreationally and the diverse opinions on the pros and cons of using it, it is imperative that research on a continuing basis is conducted to gain a better understanding of its effects on the human brain and behavior. The intense feelings of pleasure and wellness from cannabis use are attributed to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive substance in marijuana that in turn influences the brain’s processing of oxygen.
In one such research, conducted by Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders, Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, the effects of the THC on the brain of chronic users were studied. Dr. Filbey and her team were interested to know to what extent THC affected the flow of oxygen through the brain and at what rate oxygen was used by the brain. The findings were published in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology.
A systematic evaluation was conducted among 74 recurrent cannabis users and a control group of 101 non-users. Based on the relevant analysis, the chronic cannabis users were made to abstain from cannabis for the at least 72 hours before the experiment. All the participants were picked from a similar age and IQ range. The selection of 74 users was based on the reported number of at least 5,000 usages throughout the lifetime of participants, in addition to daily use in the 60 days before they enrolled for the study.
Cannabis use was tested based on the measurement of THC levels in the participants’ urine. Additionally, alterations in the brain function were monitored using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). By using several novel MRI techniques, the association between prolonged cannabis use and the following neurophysiological indicators were determined:
The research findings established that habitual cannabis users had a higher reading in OEF and CMRO2 than nonusers, which means that the brains of users extract more oxygen from the blood and have a higher blood flow. Another intriguing finding was the higher blood flow among the chronic cannabis users in the region of the brain called the ‘putamen.’ This is known to play a key role in creating habits and is a part of the reward system. Thus, these findings imply that THC can dilate blood vessels and thereby increase blood flow or forge new blood vessels. Therefore, the functional and structural changes in the brain of marijuana users could arise due to cerebrovascular function.
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